As the COVID-19 crisis spreads, social media platforms are faced with a reckoning. They were founded on a business model that does not account for the cost of risk mitigation. Simply put, the companies that have launched these platforms over the years do not train, support, cultivate and pension off professional reporters who are responsible for content. Now, they are literally facing life-or-death consequences. When the dust settles and the crisis has passed, it will be difficult to return to business as usual.

The lethal consequences of social media

Human rights advocates have fought to establish a chain of responsibility between the tolerance of hate speech on Facebook and other social media platforms and lethal real-world consequences.

The abuse continues with regard to hate speech, but over the past two years, the pressure needle has moved toward the area of medical misinformation.

Last year, Facebook collaborated with the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a new effort to push back against misinformation on vaccines. Though not resolving the problem at its root, the strategy involves exposing more users to reliable sources and factual information.

The move indicated at least some measure of responsibility for social media content with potentially lethal consequences. That set the stage for a more concerted effort to police misinformation about COVID-19.

Facebook steps up on COVID-19

In contrast to the vague boundaries of hate speech, the consequences of spreading misinformation on COVID-19 are starkly apparent.

In South Korea, for example, researchers have determined that 46 members of the same church were infected after they all used the same spray bottle to dose themselves with saltwater in a misguided attempt to shield themselves from the virus.

With the vaccine response as a template, Facebook began clamping down on COVID-19 misinformation in January.

As of this week, Facebook’s anti-misinformation steps include, among others:

  • Limiting misinformation and harmful content about COVID-19
  • Connecting people to accurate information and helpful resources like the WHO and local health ministries
  • Prohibiting ads intended to create panic or imply that certain products guarantee a cure or prevent people from contracting the coronavirus
  • Temporarily banning ads and commerce listings selling medical face masks
  • Matching $20 million in donations to support COVID-19 relief efforts and giving the WHO as many free ads as they need for their response, along with other in-kind support

In addition, Facebook modified its controversial policy of not fact-checking political advertisements. From now on, political advertisements that include misinformation about the virus will be blocked. (Editors note: As of press time, some TriplePundit writers have noted that Facebook is mistakenly blocking and marking as spam legitimate articles from sites like The Atlantic, The Independent, Eater, and Vice.)

A coordinated effort on medical misinformation

Earlier this week, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube also issued a joint statement collaborating on pushback against misinformation.

“We’re…jointly combating fraud and misinformation about the virus, elevating authoritative content on our platforms, and sharing critical updates in coordination with government healthcare agencies around the world,” the statement read in part.

Pinterest has not formally signed on to the collaboration, but it has set a high bar for action based partly on its previous vaccination advocacy.

Last year Pinterest acknowledged an “enthusiasm gap” between misinformation and fact-based information on its platform, partly fueled by financial benefit accruing to unreliable sources.

With that in mind, Pinterest blocked all search terms, recommendations, and comments related to vaccines, and directed users to information from WHO and other reliable sources, and it posts the following message on vaccine-related searches:

“Pins about this topic often violate our Community Guidelines, which prohibit harmful medical misinformation. Because of this, we’ve limited search results to Pins from internationally-recognized health organizations. If you’re looking for medical advice, please contact a healthcare provider.”

In addition, Pinterest’s community guidelines specifically prohibit advice that has “immediate and detrimental effects on a pinner’s health or on public safety. This includes the promotion of false cures for terminal or chronic illnesses and anti-vaccination advice.”

With that model in hand, Pinterest reacted swiftly to the COVID-19 outbreak. Searchers now encounter a “sparse” page of content provided by the World Health Organization when using the terms COVID-19 or coronavirus.

Setting the stage for a clampdown on hate speech and misinformation

The effort has extended to other platforms and other media as well. The online shopping platform Amazon, for example, did not sign onto the commitment, but it has removed misleading virus-themed products from its seller field.

Even Fox News, which has established a longstanding record of tolerance for misinformation, appears to have reached its limit with the COVID-19 outbreak.

For weeks, hosts on Fox vigorously downplayed the crisis, partly by comparing it to other public health issues.

The Washington Post, for example, reported that popular host Sean Hannity compared the virus-related deaths to victims of gun violence, remarking: “26 people have shot in Chicago alone over the weekend. I doubt you heard about it. You notice there’s no widespread hysteria about violence in Chicago.”

That changed abruptly last Friday when Fox pivoted to full-blown support U.S. President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency.

In what may be another sign of things to come, earlier this week Amazon reportedly took steps to ban the sale of Nazi propaganda, including Mein Kampf and children’s books, among others. The move follows a lobbying effort by Holocaust groups that dates back to Amazon’s earliest days.

As tragic and disruptive as the COVID-19 crisis is, it has torn away from the protective shield from social media and other platforms and exposed their core responsibility for providing accurate information on matters of grave public concern.

Their response to COVID-19 may ripple into other areas when top policymakers acknowledge gun violence and hate speech as public health crises, too.

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